Enter the real Phyllida Lloyd, fresh-faced and 37, through the swing doors of the Clapham rehearsal rooms where she is directing the Brecht/Weill low-life musical in its final stages of preparation. There are a few hitches. In a company of 18, all but three both act and play an instrument ("We couldn't afford separate actors and musicians"). There are doubts about whether a character can viably lie down and die on stage and carry on playing the clarinet, supine. Given that previews begin in three days' time, there seems to be an alarming number of unresolved dilemmas. "I do sometimes worry about the expediency of it all," says the director.
But no one is panicking, least of all Lloyd. The only suggestion of urgency about her quiet person is a navy jumper that looks as if it's been snatched from the bottom of a very deep pile of washing. She carries an air of confident seriousness: voice soft, brown eyes steady, mouth set in an ironic upward curve. This one will come together, just as the others did.
Tranquillity breeds tranquillity. Phyllida grew up in the rural West Country, her father a wine merchant with Harvey's of Bristol. The village of Nempnett Thrub-well "was so remote that when we had parties none of the guests could ever find it". It was an idyllic childhood spent, with her brother, "playing around on farms".
At 11 she was sent to a boarding school in Malvern - a deeply eccentric establishment dedicated to the arts. The calendar was packed with pagan festivals, and the girls were taught such accomplishments as Greek dancing, "prancing around the lawn with laurel leaves stuck in our bra-straps". There was also a strong tradition of theatre, both making and seeing it. "On receiving the exorbitant bills our parents would gasp to see that one had been to Stratford eight times in a term. Culturally, we were very privileged. Academically, it was a washout."
"By default" Phyllida scraped together some A-levels. She wanted to act but her mother thought drama school "too dicey" and persuaded her to read English and Drama at Birmingham University, where she got her first taste of directing. When she graduated in 1979, television was the way into everything. She planned to work her way up to directing along the well- trodden path of assistant floor-manager to manager. In the BBC's drama department she says she learnt a lot, watching directors direct, "but it was incredibly frustrating - a bit like the Army. You almost had to shoot your superior or get him sacked before you could progress."
So she started to "skive off" to do fringe theatre with a friend, Caroline Oulton, now a big cheese in television drama. Oulton would write a play, Lloyd would direct it, anywhere on the fringe that would have them. Cheekily, they raised funds from within the BBC, "literally by going up to people and asking them for a tenner".
After two or three such productions (one of which your reporter happened to see in a cramped Chelsea pub: a set of rather fierce Greek legends, making great play with ladders and cloths) Lloyd was offered her first professional contract. It was to direct a two-hander about Sylvia Plath in Worcester - for three weeks. Thinking her career had taken off, she threw up the day job, ignoring her parents' wails. Reality dawned when she spent the next two years "just scrabbling around".
The break eventually came in the form of an Arts Council trainee directorship, offering six years directing rep in Cheltenham, Bristol and Manchester, during which time she attracted the notice of people she would never have dreamt of approaching. Adrian Noble, scouting out freelance directors for the RSC, started her off alongside Steven Pimlott, Katie Mitchell and others. And Anthony Payne, then at Opera North, suggested she try her hand at opera. This was an option she had never considered, and she is still baffled as to what Payne saw in her work that he thought would translate to the opera stage.
Yet despite her doubts about her musicianship, opera has proved Lloyd's strongest suit. Three productions in two years for Opera North have all received ecstatic reviews, and she is booked for more, notably Cherubini's Medea with Josephine Barstow, star of Gloriana. Pushily precocious this director is not; news travels faster when a director is not just good but friendly and supportive too.
That's how The Threepenny Opera came about. Sam Mendes (a friend from rep) suggested it as his Donmar Christ-mas musical. Lloyd, who had never seen the show, loved the script for its rawness and unsentimentality, but thought the songs needed updating (sorry, Bertolt), and boldly commissioned Jeremy Sams to write new lyrics. These were completed before it was realised that the Brecht estate would first have to give its consent. There was a long wait for the answer (eventually, "Ja"). A lesser director might have buckled, but Phyllida of Nempnett Thrubwell kept her head. Where next to test her nerve? The National perhaps?
8`The Threepenny Opera': Donmar, WC2, 071-369 1732, now previewing, opens Wed.Reuse content